Postmodernism is essentially the claim that (1) since there are an innumerable number of ways in which the world can be interpreted and perceived (and those are tightly associated) then (2) no canonical manner of interpretation can be reliably derived.
(Jordan Peterson, ‘Postmodernism: definition and critique’, here)
Talk of the need for “diversity” … is a reflection of the postmodern view that knowledge is culturally constructed and that different identity groups are positioned differently in relation to it. Therefore, it is believed that different groups produce different knowledge.
(Helen Pluckrose, ‘No, Postmodernism Is Not Dead’, here)
In contrast to our quest for general laws defining a single objective reality, the postmodern left glory in the multiplicity of realities pressing in on their subjective awareness … Truth [for the postmodern leftist] discovered in divergent perspectives is valued above the univocal ideal of empirical science … for us, reality is concrete and literal. Against this, the postmodernist points out that even the reality constructed and perceived by the scientific mind at bottom symbolic, but its symbols were exclusively of a specific kind — mechanic, material, impersonal — and is interpreted by scientists are uniquely valid.
(Mark Adams, ‘21st Century Leftist Rationalism: A Credo’)
These passages, picked more or less at random, show a narrative that has arisen and gained much popularity all along the political spectrum, left, right, and centre. According to it, some of the contemporary millennial left have been waylaid by postmodernism, a loosely connected skein of views arising mainly from some very hard-to-read post-World War 2 French philosophers (for an attempt to answer to the difficult question as to what postmodernism actually is, you could check out this).
According to (these people’s readings of) postmodernism, it promotes irrationality and feeling and perspective over objectivity and science, with disastrous results: Peterson, for example, thinks that it leaves people with an ethic, and without a way of acting. Pluckrose thinks that it prevents the left from establishing its goals of eliminating sexism and racism and so on. And the latter, at least, thinks that enlightenment-rationalist values of objective truth, liberalism, progress, and reason, are the way to achieve those goals (which she agrees are worth fighting for).
Is this popular narrative right? Are millennial leftists postmodernists?
No, is my answer. I’ll make the case that we should think of the contemporary left as heirs to a markedly older culture, that of the 18th century Romantics, and then show how seeing them this way promises to diffuse some of the seemingly interminable ‘culture wars’ that are a feature of life today.
I have to begin, though, with a confession. I made up Mark Adams and his credo. What I quoted above is a very slightly rejigged passage from Richard Tarnas’s 1991 book The Passion of the Western Mind, in which he was talking about the Romantic movement in art and literature of the 18th century. Here is the actual passage, with important changes bolded:
In contrast to the scientist’s quest for general laws defining a single objective reality, the Romantic gloried in the unbounded multiplicity of realities pressing in on his subjective awareness … Truth discovered in divergent perspectives was valued above the monolithic and univocal ideal of empirical science … for the Enlightenment-scientific mind … reality is concrete and literal. Against this, the Romantic points out that even the reality constructed and perceived by the scientific mind at bottom symbolic, but its symbols were exclusively of a specific kind — mechanic, material, impersonal — and is interpreted by scientists are uniquely valid. (p368–9)
Basically, I swapped ‘Romantic’ for ‘postmodern left’ and the meaning was preserved. This should make us think. If many of the supposedly distinctively postmodern attitudes were already around in the 18th century, should we be so sure that their current manifestation is a result of postmodernism?
When something spontaneously arises in two notably different places and times, it becomes more plausible to think that its so arising isn’t a result of contingent historical facts (like that some English lit professors read Derrida in the ‘80s), but is rather the expression of something deeper, perhaps something like an in-built tendency of humans to deal with the world a certain way (this position could be made more solid by showing that it arose in yet other places. I think this can be shown (perhaps Protagoras vs Socrates and Nietzsche’s Apollo vs Dionysus are two examples of the same underlying clash) but won’t make that case here.)
I want to explore this second thought, according to which not only are contemporary leftists Romantics, but viewing the world in the Romantic way is just something like a basic way of taking a perspective in the world, unlikely to be unseated by sallies in a cultural war. In order to do that, of course, I need to explain what Romanticism is. So that’s what I’ll do.
The Glories of the 17th Century: Newton, Locke, Milton
In order to appreciate some of the features of the Romantics, it’ll be useful to consider the intellectual culture which preceded them and against which they are well seen as reacting.
To do this, I’ll consider three highpoints of 17th century culture: the scientist Isaac Newton, the philosopher John Locke, and the poet John Milton.
Newton’s achievements are familiar. His 1687 Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica presented three relatively simple to understand laws of mechanics that were able to predict an amazingly large chunk of how the world works. Thanks to him, it was within our power to predict, for example, the orbits of planets as well as the exact trajectory of a cannon fired across the horizon. Even more impressively, he developed a whole new mathematics to achieve this, inaugurating, or at least emphasizing, the by now familiar idea that mathematics functions as something like the language of the universe. Much of what he take for granted about both the way reality works and the scientific enterprise comes from Newton.
A mere two years later, Locke published An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, in which he developed an empiricist philosophy apt for incorporating the scientific view of the world around at the time, a view according to which the phenomena of the world were the result of physical bodies interacting in accordance with some laws of physics. An important feature of his philosophy for our purposes is his distinction between primary and secondary qualities.
The primary qualities of an object, roughly speaking, are those that an object has independently of us, which include its shape, state of motion, and texture. Importantly, these are also the properties important for telling a scientific story of how bodies interact with one another. The secondly qualities are in some sense perceiver-dependent, depending in particular on how our sense organs are. These include properties corresponding to the senses like smell and taste, and also things like colour. The thought is that the colour of an object is something that arises by virtue of an object’s interacting with us, and wouldn’t exist if humans weren’t there, but its shape, for example, is a truly objective feature of it.
The important point for our purposes is that this distinction enshrines as fundamental to philosophy a more objective way the world is — in terms of its primary qualities — that is necessary for a scientific theory of objects, and a more subjective way, in terms of secondary qualities, which explains our experience. A useful way to understand Romanticism is as being more concerned about the secondary qualities, thus our experiences, sensations, and feelings, than the more scientifically useful primary qualities.
Finally — and moving from science and philosophy to art — in Milton we have poetry on a sublime, rarefied, epic scale. Milton wanted to write an epic in the spirit of Homer and Virgil in English, and indeed his work is full of allusions to such work as well as neologisms based on it. Paradise Lost (1674) is written in a very tortured Latinate syntax, and indeed tells perhaps the loftiest story of all, about the fall of man, featuring as characters God and Satan.
As Zach Pickard notes:
a certain knowledge of Latin is necessary to fully understand Milton’s word choices in the following lines:
up stood the corny reed
Embattled in her field: add the humble shrub,
And bush with frizzled hair implicit: last
Rose as in dance the stately trees, and spread
Their branches hung with copious fruit; or gemmed
Their blossoms. (VII 322–326)
Corny alludes neither to a common grain nor a common foot-ailment, but to the Latin cornu, horn. Similarly, implicit implies its Latin ancestor, implicare, to entangle, and gemmed the Latin gemmare, to bud.
Not very accessible! This is writing by and for highly educated people, and as such — even taking into account that knowledge of Latin was much more common then — its grandiosity seems to come at a cost of excluding many possible readers.
How do you think you would have reacted born into a world where these were the recent intellectual developments? Where so much knowledge and learning was on display, and humans were using it to master the natural world and philosophy as well as create sublime art? Well, let’s see what the Romantics thought.
Science and Civilization Suck — Rousseau
Let’s begin our tour of the Romantics with Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778). The awkwardness of intellectual history is evident here since he’s been called both a proto-Romantic as well as an influence on the Enlightenment, but regardless of what we call him his voice is, perhaps more than any other, one that chimes with ours.
One could be forgiven, surveying the 17th century, for feeling good about humankind, thinking that our achievements in science, philosophy, and art, were to be celebrated. Rousseau kinda disagreed. Here’s what he has to say in any essay about whether the progress in the arts and sciences was good for morality:
Astronomy was born of superstition, eloquence of ambition, hatred, falsehood and flattery; geometry of avarice; physics of an idle curiosity; and even moral philosophy of human pride. Thus the arts and sciences owe their birth to our vices; we should be less doubtful of their advantages, if they had sprung from our virtues…where is the man who sincerely desires to find [scientific truth]? … who among us will know how to make right use of it? …. If our sciences are futile in the objects they propose, they are no less dangerous in the effects they produce
(‘A Discourse On The Moral Effects Of The Arts And Sciences’, here)
Let’s just emphasize this: this isn’t Foucault or Derrida or some other postmodernist, calling into questions our motives (calling into question the idea that we are disinterested truth speakers, as opposed to, say, people attempting to wield power as the Foucaultian would have it), or questioning whether science will know how to deal with the effects they produce (which one might imagine Foucault saying of the Manhattan project, or a contemporary leftist about AI in light of its racist biases).
No — this is Rousseau, writing almost three hundred years ago. A mistrust of science isn’t new — it’s been around since science really started picking up steam, and the thought that it’s definitive of our age is just wrong. Noticing that we should be skeptical of the thought that we are going through some particularly new and baleful moment in the history of ideas. We’re not: we’re just retracing arguments that humans seem, perhaps just as a matter of temperament, to be inclined to trace. The contemporary leftist who responds to those who want to use, e.g. blockchains for social good by pointing out bitcoin’s ecological cost, or who responds cynically to data about how fewer people are living in extreme poverty thanks to capitalism by pointing out that, well, thanks to capitalism, in not so long, fewer people will be living full stop thanks to climate change can, I think, be viewed as giving voice to the same sort of anti-progress viewpoint as Rousseau. It didn’t take Derridean differance to enable people to wonder about the negative effects that progress entrains.
In another early and major work, Rousseau also rails against what he calls ‘moral or political inequality’, the inequality that arises when people come to live together in cities. He seems to think, in particular, that civilization is a big scam instituted by the rich to protect their wealth from the more powerful — because more numerous — poor people, and attributes a lot of the problems of modern life to the institution of private property. It should scarcely need to be said that this is something that would resonate with the modern leftist, and so even if Peterson’s (nonsensical) postmodern neoMarxism hadn’t come along, it’s plausible they’d still have the same attitudes towards capitalism.
Wordworth and Other Voices
Recall Milton’s epic canvas and fancy verbiage. One way to look at that — although it sounds a bit anachronistic and weird — is that he is speaking with the weight of tradition and power behind him, using privileged-people language to discuss things of interest only to people with great swathes of education.
Much contemporary leftist agitation is concerned with letting speak voices other than those traditionally heard, and portraying the lives of people other than straight white people. Again, some think this can be explained in terms of postmodernism with its leveling of different ways of speaking in combination with its views about how power has malignly influenced who gets to speak.
But, again, we can see something like this concern with opening up at least what gets spoken of in the Romantics. William Wordsworth (1770–1850) famously wrote a preface to a collection of poems he and Coleridge wrote, Lyrical Ballads, in which he defended his use of normal language and his speaking of normal people in normal situations (as opposed to, literally, making up words based on Latin to talk about God and the devil). The passage is a bit long — feel free to skim:
Humble and rustic life was generally chosen, because, in that condition, the essential passions of the heart find a better soil in which they can attain their maturity, are less under restraint, and speak a plainer and more emphatic language; because in that condition of life our elementary feelings coexist in a state of greater simplicity, and, consequently, may be more accurately contemplated, and more forcibly communicated; because the manners of rural life germinate from those elementary feelings, and, from the necessary character of rural occupations, are more easily comprehended, and are more durable; and, lastly, because in that condition the passions of men are incorporated with the beautiful and permanent forms of nature. The language, too, of these men has been adopted (purified indeed from what appear to be its real defects, from all lasting and rational causes of dislike or disgust) because such men hourly communicate with the best objects from which the best part of language is originally derived; and because, from their rank in society and the sameness and narrow circle of their intercourse, being less under the influence of social vanity, they convey their feelings and notions in simple and unelaborated expressions. Accordingly, such a language, arising out of repeated experience and regular feelings, is a more permanent, and a far more philosophical language, than that which is frequently substituted for it by Poets, who think that they are conferring honour upon themselves and their art, in proportion as they separate themselves from the sympathies of men, and indulge in arbitrary and capricious habits of expression. (available here)
Although he didn’t really do much in terms of diversifying the cannon — it’s not as if he enlisted livers of ‘humble’ life to speak for themselves — at least one could argue that he was concerned with changing the shape of poetry to more evenly represent life in its varieties, a goal that many on the left, concerned with representation, could agree with. Here again, then, we arguably see the precursor to today’s young people in the Romantics.
Rousseau: I have a spanking fetish!, or, why millennials talk about private things publicly
One thing that people have noted about the millennial generation is their tendency to speak freely (often right there in their social media bios) about things older generations wouldn’t speak about in public, or at all. (I don’t have any article to link to back up that people have noted this, and can’t be bothered googling to find one, but I’m sure they have.)
Thus it’s not unusual to see people talk about their sexual preferences or physical or mental health conditions on public-facing platforms like twitter, and, moreover, for most people there’s no stigma attached to it.
Can we explain this feature of contemporary habits? Well, I guess one could try to say that the perspectivalism encouraged by postmodernism, by determining one’s capacity to speak to an issue by one’s position with regard to it, mandates such disclosures.
But I think we can do better. We’re just a generation that is open about talking about feelings and related things. And again we can note that this is something we find in the Romantics. Thus, to return to our old friend Rousseau, he wrote what some consider the first autobiography. And one might think, you know, to the extent that talking about oneself was this new thing, that he would be circumspect.
But … no. After a bit about his childhood and reading preferences, it doesn’t take too long to get to this passage (both from here):
I found the reality [of being spanked] much less terrible than the idea, and what is still more unaccountable, this punishment increased my affection for the person who had inflicted it. All this affection, aided by my natural mildness, was scarcely sufficient to prevent my seeking, by fresh offences, a return of the same chastisement; for a degree of sensuality had mingled with the smart and shame, which left more desire than fear of a repetition.
He goes on to mention how his kink, in addition to his shyness, made it difficult to meet women:
This folly, joined to a natural timidity, has always prevented my being very enterprising with women, so that I have passed my days in languishing in silence for those I most admired, without daring to disclose my wishes. To fall at the feet of an imperious mistress, obey her mandates, or implore pardon, were for me the most exquisite enjoyments, and the more my blood was inflamed by the efforts of a lively imagination the more I acquired the appearance of a whining lover.
If you think that self-disclosure is a typically millennial thing, I recommend skimming through The Confessions.
I think — though I’m somewhat less sure about this — that a concern with mental health can also be seen in the Romantics. No less an authority than Goethe tells us that ‘classicism is health, romanticism sickness’, and there is often a concern in Romantics with what we would now call depression (wiki backs me up here). Thus consider the first lines of Keats’s (1795–1821) ‘Ode To Melancholy’, where the poet considers — in fancy speak — suicide:
No, no, go not to Lethe, neither twist
Wolf’s-bane, tight-rooted, for its poisonous wine;
Nor suffer thy pale forehead to be kiss’d
By nightshade, ruby grape of Proserpine;
Nor let the beetle, nor the death-moth be
Your mournful Psyche, nor the downy owl
A partner in your sorrow’s mysteries;
For shade to shade will come too drowsily,
And drown the wakeful anguish of the soul
Or, you might take a look at this article that lists some of Shelley’s ‘super-emo’ poem titles.
In general, there’s something about the Romantics that makes them more open to the darker aspects of life. My tentative suggestion is that a similar tendency in millennials explains mental health talk.
(It’s kind of important to note, I think, that this willingness to talk about mental health and more generally feelings openly seems like an unambiguously good feature of the modern era, so that even were one entirely on board with the enlightenment criticism of the contemporary left it would still be worth wondering whether this good is outweighed by the other bads.)
We see, then, pessimism about progress, science, and civilization, a concern with feelings, even more private and delicate ones, and an interest in more marginalized voices as central themes in the Romantics. I hope that this sounds like a pretty good summing up of some aspects of millennial leftist people, and that my thesis that we should view them as heirs to the Romantics now strikes you as somewhat plausible. I want to end by considering some consequences for this way of viewing things.
One particularly important thing, I think, is that it suggests what has been seen as a culture war is in fact, or should be, something different. On the attitude I prefer, we should seek to minimize clashes between the fans of the Enlightenment and rationality and our Romantics. Arguments based on twitter are an extremely bad idea but: I follow plenty of people from both sides. From the former, I might learn valuable information about blockchains or macroeconomics, knowledge that helps me navigate the world better. But equally, from the latter, I get put in contact with perspectives and voices other than my own and am party to conversations about existentially important things like, to repeat from earlier, mental health. I don’t think in deciding how we ought to live that it should be macroeconomics or mental health as a binary choice: we need both, both the rationalists and those who recognize the value and importance of feelings and of sympathy.
Consider a concrete example: free speech. A visiting speaker gets invited who has offensive views about Muslims. They get no-platformed because their presence would upset the Muslim students. The Enlightenment cry foul: the Islamaphobe’s views should get defeated in the marketplace of ideas. The Romantic say — or should say — meh, I care more about some people not feeling bad than about the (supposed, but in fact dubious) claim that good ideas win out.
That seems like a perfectly fine response on its own terms: that when feelings clash with, say, arguments, sometimes it’s fine to let the feelings win, because we’re both thinking and feeling beings, and to neglect one at the expense of the other is probably not going to work out great.
In a similar vein, the line I’ve developed here suggests not only that it’s probably not a great idea for rationalists to wage a culture war against Romantics, but also it’s probably a waste of time. If we’re just dealing here with two different but equally fundamental perspectives on the world, that are concerned with different aspects of the world and responsive to different sorts of phenomena, then the thought that we could win round the Romantic with argument, or the rationalist with appeals to how people feel, is probably not a great one. Rather we should recognize this duality in human nature and do our best to make our social and private lives responsive both to reason and to feeling.